Description of the collaboration
Neteland is a collaborative service delivery arrangement between five Flemish municipalities. Collaboration is viewed as a key mechanism to increase the efficiency of public service delivery in the region and to groom the involved municipalities to better tackle potential future challenges local governments will have to deal with. In accordance with the Neteland police district, the Neteland municipal region was used in 2016 as a starting point for intensive municipal collaboration. The collaboration currently spans five thematic areas: environment, leisure, healthcare and well-being, public security, and internal organizational affairs. The use of ICT to optimize and innovate local public services is a common thread throughout these themes.
Impact of ICT on collaboration
ICT plays an important role in local public service delivery, but it may simultaneously foster and hamper intermunicipal collaboration. The use of ICT has provided clear advantages in many thematic areas of the collaboration (e.g., COVID-19 response, event planning, volunteering services, or administrative simplification). Importantly, ICT use should not be viewed as a goal in itself, but as a key production factor in collaborative service delivery. Moreover, serious deadlocks may arise when the involved local actors operate within fundamentally different back-office IT systems and when management and frontline personnel do not adhere to the same views about necessary adoption or transformation of such systems. Additionally, interviewees stressed that the mapping of recovery of ICT-related set-up costs should not only rely on economic indicators, but also on non-financial or non-monetary terms (such as creating breathing space within administrations).
Impact of collaboration on efficiency
In the case of Neteland, efficiency is related to various aspects of the collaboration process: e.g., clear governance structure, the joint use of ICT, the size of the collaborative arrangement, and the territorial scale. Efficiency gains within the collaborative arrangement are not yet structurally monitored, but respondents did suggest that several improvements are already visible and that many more are expected soon.
Many efficiency gains are visible as different steps in the process are slimmed down. What initially affected many of the partners was the burden of one-man services. This has been reduced, on the one hand by sharing services and on the other hand by digitizing services (e.g., library work and event counter). A smart combination of joint offline and online communication strategies allows the involved municipalities in Neteland to reach more citizens and service users with less effort and resources.
An interesting characteristic of this case is that the upfront costs of collaboration have already been covered by the unofficial starting period of the collaboration. The five municipalities had already worked together on an ad hoc basis in the past which meant that the costs of building trust, establishing contacts, and getting familiar with one another remained fairly low. Involving partners that knew each other beforehand and bringing together a ‘coalition of the willing’ was important to diminish upfront collaboration related costs and to ensure efficient collaboration from the start.
Governance and the scale of collaboration are two other important determinants of efficiency in this case. It took quite some time and resources to set up the current governance structure, but all partners agreed that this was necessary to anchor the existing good relationship between the five municipalities. Through a decisive and consistent employment steering committees (general managers and mayors) and several policy and advisory groups (civil servants and aldermen), efficient cross-pollination between different perspectives in the collaboration can be achieved. In the past, the involved municipalities also collaborated more fragmentedly with other neighbouring municipalities, but the economies of scale in these arrangements were smaller than expected and coordination problems often occurred. The current collaboration takes place in a pre-defined region where theoretically no entry (of new parties) or exit (of the five involved municipalities) is possible.
Impact of collaboration on red tape
Several characteristics of the collaboration process in this case have an impact on the presence or absence of different forms of red tape. In some respects, the initial perception of red tape and administrative burdens have successfully been relieved, while in other respects, the collaboration has enhanced burdens. Moreover, interviewees report that the presence of red tape in turn also has an important hampering influence on the execution and process of collaborative initiatives.
Tradition and path dependency seem to be two of the most crucial impediments of red tape reductions. Budgetary constraints and procurement red tape also play important roles in the collaboration, in the sense that partners do not just want to undo recent funding (or terminate/breach contracts) for the benefit of the project, which inherently involves uncertainties in terms of outcomes and effectiveness. However, on the other hand, collaboration also means that some aspects of red tape were reduced. Being able to set-up additional innovative collaborative initiatives (e.g., the Covid-19 call centre) within Neteland can now happen quicker.
Implications and lessons learned
The Neteland case demonstrates that far-reaching, recurrent, and structural collaboration between municipalities in various policy areas is feasible if a sound governance structure is flanked by efforts to share ICT systems, use a common administrative language, and achieve a good dynamic between levels in the organisations involved. However, despite genuine ambitions of the actors to collaborate more closely, several difficulties are still encountered and need to be addressed to further enhance the efficiency of service delivery and reduction of red tape. Several lessons can be learned from this case:
- The choice of a particular collaboration scale should be informed by existing relationships between actors, territorial reach, and the building of a coalition of the willing.
- Consistent yet flexible governance is key to ensure that management decisions are based on solutions that are supported by service providers and users.
- Administrative breathing space is needed to achieve more with less resources and should also be considered as an indicator of cost-effectiveness.
- Finding a common way of working (e.g., back-office IT systems) is difficult, but will allow the various actors to work more closely and more efficiently together.
You can read the full case study here.
To read more about this research, see D9.1 – A Review of Efficiency and Red Tape in Public Sector Collaborations report.
- https://regioneteland.be/integrale-veiligheid/ (In Dutch)
- https://lokaalbestuur.vlaanderen.be/sites/default/files/public/thema/verzelfstandiging_samenwerking/VerzelfstandingenSamenwerking_Regioscreening_regioscreening.pdf (In Dutch)
- https://www.vvsg.be/kennisitem/vvsg/in-ons-magazine-vijf-gemeenten-neteland-bieden-samen-coronacrisis-het-hoofd (In Dutch)
About the Author
Emmanuel Dockx, University of Antwerp